The Magna Carta Project

Magna Carta 1217

by David Carpenter



There has always been a puzzle about the date of Magna Carta 1217.  While all the four surviving engrossments say they are sealed by the legate, Guala, and the regent, William  Marshal, none of them  have a ‘giving’ clause with its attendant place and date of issue.1  By 'giving clause', I mean  the standard clause at the end of a royal charter stating that it has been 'given by the hand' of the king or a minister at a specified place on a specified date, the giving itself being  the final authorisation for the engrossment and sealing of the charter. In 1217 the 'giving clause' is equally missing from one of the two engrossments of the  accompanying Charter of the Forest. The other engrossment, that at Durham, although damaged, clearly once ended with the statement that it was given by the legate and the regent on a day in November in the second year of the king’s reign, so November 1217.  Since Magna Carta has the same preamble as the Forest Charter and, from internal evidence, the two were clearly conceived together, it seems safe to date Magna Carta itself to November 1217. 


There remain, however, questions over both the precise date of the November 1217  Charters and, more importantly,  who took responsibility for them,  questions  not helped by the mistakes made in the most authoritative printed edition, that in Statutes of the Realm.  There the end of Magna Carta, as in the surviving engrossments, is left undated but the conclusion of the Forest Charter is given,  with  abbreviations expanded,  as follows: 'Datum per manus predictorum Domini Legati et Willelmo Marescalli apud Sanctum Paulum Londoniis Sexto die Novembris, Anno Regni nostri secundo.'2  The table of contents to Statutes of the Realm  explains that the words placed here ‘in the Italic Character’, ‘destroyed by time  or accident’ in the original, have been ‘suggested’ by copies of the Charter. In fact none of the copies cited precisely repeat the missing words. However,  they are replicated in a copy found in a late thirteenth-century statute book, British Library Add. MS. 38821 (below p.56).3  Here Magna Carta itself has no witnesses or dating clause, but the following copy of the Forest Charter does indeed conclude with the statement that it has been given by the hands of the legate and William Marshal at St Paul’s on 6 November in the second year of the king’s reign.4  Another copy has the Forest Charter, not ‘given’ but at least sealed by the legate and Marshal on 6 November.5 Yet another has Magna Carta itself sealed by them on that date.6  Since 6 November appears in many other copies, it would seem fairly safe to assume that both Charters were indeed ‘given’ by the legate and William Marshal on that date.


Unfortunately the picture is rather murkier than that.  The first problem relates to the date in November found in the Durham original of the Forest Charter. In the Statutes of the Realm  text, as we have seen, it is given as ‘Sexto’,  and since the ‘S’ of the ‘sexto’ is not italicized, it was apparently still visible.  But it was not. The Statutes of the Realm had cheated. In the engraving it reproduced,  as in later photographs of the Charter, and in the Charter as it is today, the letter appears to be a ‘Q’.  The space, moreover, between the first letter, whatever it is, and ‘Novembris’ is certainly too long for ‘exto, whereas it would accomodate ‘uattuordecimo’ or ‘uintodecimo’.


It would seem, then, from this evidence, that the Durham Forest Charter, and by association Magna Carta as well,  were given by the legate and the regent at St Paul's London on 14 or 15 November 1217. But now we come to another problem. This is an impossible date because by 14-15 November, as the dating clauses of royal letters show, the Marshal had left the capital  and was on his way to Gloucester.  The date 6 November,  by contrast, found in the copies, is perfectly compatible with the Marshal’s itinerary.  How then has the Durham Forest Charter a 14-15 November date? I confess I have no answer to that question other than to suggest that while the Charters were indeed given on 6 November, the clerk, writing out the Durham original, gave it the date not of its actual  'giving' but of its actual writing out. This seems contrary to usual practice. The originals of Magna Carta in 1215 and 1225  all bear the same date  although they are  unlikely to have all been written on the same day.7 The fact that the Durham charter was for the see of Durham (it has always been in the episcopal archives) makes the date all the stranger for the bishop of Durham was none other than the chancellor, Richard Marsh.  


Mention of Richard Marsh brings us to a second problem, that of who actually did ‘give’ or authorize the 1217 Charters. We have seen the evidence that they were ‘given’ by the legate and the Marshal. Yet large numbers of copies have Magna Carta  ‘given’ on 6 November not by them but by Richard Marsh himself!


What then was going on? It is not impossible that Richard Marsh did 'give' some engrossments of the Charters at St Paul's on 6 November. One copy, in a late thirteenth, early fourteenth-century statute book (British Library Harley 746), gives what might have been the concluding passage of such engrossments.8 It has the Charter  sealed by the legate and the Marshal but given, on 6 November,  by Richard Marsh.9  It is impossible, however, to be sure that Marsh did really give engrossments. It may well be that the copies in which he appears derived rather from rejected drafts.  The fact that all the copies with his name are hybrids, combining elements from 1217 and 1225,  and thus do not present a clean 1217  text,  may point in that direction.  That the Forest Charter in question was destined for Marsh’s own see at Durham, and thus might above all have been one he would ‘give’,  strengthens the case. In the end, perhaps, the legate and the regent overrode the status conscious chancellor and insisted on taking responsibility for the Charters themselves, a measure of the Charter's importance.


One puzzle remains. Why are all but one of the engrossments of Magna Carta and the Forest Charter left without a date, concluding simply with the statement that they have been sealed by the legate and the regent? The answer  may be that  they were all drawn up for the circulation of the Charters to all the counties in February 1218.10 Perhaps at that point it was thought confusing to date the Charters to four months earlier. This meant dropping the 'giving' clause with its indication of the legate’s and the Marshal's responsibility, but  since that responsibility was clear from their seals (still adorning some of the engrossments) this hardly mattered. The fact that all but one of the engrossments thus probably belong to 1218 suggests that in November 1217 the Charters were not dispatched  to the counties.  Perhaps they just circulated amongst leading rebels as they came in to do homage to the king, thus fulfilling the promise that had done much to end the civil war. Perhaps too the absence of any official circulation in November 1217 made draft copies more sought after, as they were sought in 1215 thanks to John’s tardy issue of the engrossments.  




A cartulary of the abbey of St Peter’s Gloucester: Gloucester, Cathedral Library, Froucester Reg. 1397 (formerly Reg. A), fos.32v-35v.

Nicholas Vincent suggests that this copy was made from an engrossment of the 1217 Charter once kept at St Peter’s Gloucester, archival marks on the back of the engrossment being  similar to those found on other St Peter's documents.11 This  engrossment is now the Bodleian Library’s MS. Ch. Glouc.8. One clinching point can be added to the argument. In the last line of the Bodleian engrossment the word ‘cartam’ is omitted with a space left for its insertion. The word is similarly  omitted and a space left in the Gloucester cartulary copy! Why the word was left out is a puzzle. Was it intended to be illuminated? As this is the only copy of the 1217 Charter certainly made from an engrossment I place it first on the list.


A cartulary of the abbey of St Peter’s Gloucester: London, The National Archives, C 150/ 1, fos.51-54v.12

The cartulary is late thirteenth, early fourteenth-century. Here Magna Carta is preceded by the 1217 Charter of the Forest. In the copy of Magna Carta the names of the counselors have been omitted. The baronial relief is 100 marks. Against the chapter on 'precipe' a later hand has written 'nota bene'.  This copy was presumably taken from the engrossment at Gloucester but 'cartam' is not missing so there is not the same degree of proof.


A cartulary of Abingdon Abbey: Trustees of the Chatsworth Settlement, Chatsworth House, 71 E, fos.126v-128.13

In Two Cartularies of Abingdon Abbey, ed. C.F. Slade and G. Lambrick (Oxford Historical Society, new series 32-3, 1990-1), ii, no.C355 this is described as a copy of  the Charter of 1216. I am grateful to the Librarians of Chatsworth for sending me a photocopy of the relevant folios. It is in fact a copy of the Charter of 1217.


A cartulary of Alvingham priory:  Oxford, Bodleian Library, Laud misc. 642 (SC 1156),  fos.8-9.14 

The cartulary belongs to the second half of the thirteenth century with fourteenth century additions. Magna Carta is said to be sealed by the legate and the regent on 6 November 1217 at St Paul's, although part of the sealing clause is missing.  Between the sealing clause and the date the name of Richard Marsh appears, 'domino R. Dunholmensis cancellario nostro'.


London’s  Liber Custumarum MS D, fos.21-22: London, Metropolitan Archives, COL/CS/01/006, fos. 27v.29v

This is volume has already been described when detailing its copy of the 1215 Charter (see above p.18). Its copy of the 1217 Charter is splendidly illiuminated. New chapters are marked by alternating red and blue paragraph marks although not all  chapters  (as found in the conventional divisions) are so marked. There are also brief marginal annotations summarising the contents of the chapters. It is often remarked that the exchequer is never once named in Magna Carta. It does, however, appear here in the marginal annotation to chapter 22 about the summoning of debts  of those who have died: 'de summonicione scaccarii'. The earl owes his relief 'de comitatu integro' and the baronial relief is 100 marks. The  charter is followed (fos.29v-30) by the last section of the Charter of 1225 (see below p.67) and then by the  1225 Forest Charter (fos.30-31).    


A chronicle of  Merton Abbey: Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, 59, fos.182-185v.

I am grateful to Ian Stone for sending me images of the copy of the Charter here. The chronicle is a fair copy running down to 1242 and the Charter is in the same neat hand. The Charter is followed by the Forest Charter and then the sentence of excommunication pronounced in 1253 against violators of the Charters. Probably the whole text was written soon after that.  The copy of the 1217 Charter  is  a beautiful production with illuminated capitals at the start of each chapter and, indented into the text,  a short description in red lettering of what each  chapter is about. The 1217 Forest Charter has the same treatment.  Intentionally or not the beneficiaries of Magna Carta chapter 35 (39 in the 1215 Charter) have been widened to include everyone rather than just the free;  ‘Quod nullus puniatur nisi iudicaliter condemnetur’.


The headings in the Magna Carta are as follows15: ‘De libertate ecclesie’ (1); ‘De liberis hominibus’ (against the concession of the liberties to all free men); ‘De heredibus et relevio et custodia’ (2); ‘De dotibus’ (7); ‘Quod vidua non distringatur ad maritandum’ (8); ‘De districtione debitorum’ (9); De libertate Londoniensis et aliarum civitatum et quinque portuum’ (10); ‘De servicio militari’ (11); ‘De placitis communibus’ (12);  ‘De placita nove dissaysine et de morte antecessoris capiatur in suo comitatu’ (13); ‘De assisa ultima presentacionis’ (15); ‘De amerciandis’ (16); ‘De pontibus et defensione ripariarum’ (19); ‘De placitis corone’ (21);  ‘De debito regis distringendo’ (22); ‘De prisa bladi solucione’ (23); ‘De custodibus castrorum’ (24); ‘De caretis et cariagii’ (25); ‘De terris pro felonia convictorum’ (28); ‘De kydellis tollendis’ (29); ‘Quod nullus perdat curiam per breve quod dicitur precipe’ (30); ‘Quod mensura sit eadem similiter et pondera’ (31); ‘De inquisitione vite vel membre’ (32);  ‘De serianterie regis custodia’ (33); ‘Quod nullus teneatur iurare ad simplex dictum ballivi’ (34); ‘Quod nullus puniatur nisi iudicaliter condemnetur’ (35); ‘De iusticia sine precio reddenda’ (36); ‘De libero ingressu et regressu mercatorum’ (37); ‘Quod eschaetarii eadem gaudeant privilegia quo illi quorum terre fuerunt’ (38); ‘Quod non detur vel vendatur terra unde capitalis amittat servicium’ (39); ‘De patronis prioratuum et abbatiorum’ (40); ‘De appello mulieris’ (41); ‘De comitatibus et hundredis tenendis per vicecomites et visu de franco plegii’ (42); ‘Quod terra non detur domui religiose et iterum resumatur ab ea’ (43); ‘De scutagio capiendo’ (44); ‘Quod omnes iste libertates concesse a rege observentur ab inferioribus’ (45).


A cartulary of the priory of St Andrew’s Northampton: London, British Library, Cotton Vespasian E XVII, fos.31-32v.16

This just has a copy of the 1217 Forest Charter.


A cartulary of Otterton priory: Exeter, Devon Record Office, TD42, p.72.

I have not looked at this but Vincent notes it as an incomplete copy of the 1217 Magna Carta.17


York Minster’s Magnum Registrum Album:  York, Minster Library and Archives, L2/1, fos.279-283v and 328-332.

Here the 1217 Magna Carta and Forest Charter are copied twice over. They are said to be sealed by the legate and the Marshal but neither has a ‘giving’ clause or a date.


York Minster’s Domesday Book: York, Minster Library and Archives, L2/2a, fos.13-16. 

Here there are copies of the 1217 Magna Carta and Forest Charter  virtually the same as those in the Magnum Registrum Album.18     


A late thirteenth, early fourteenth-century statute book:  Cambridge, Trinity College,  O.76, fos.6-11.

The first part of the copy is lost. It begins just before the start of chapter 2. The chief interest of the copy is that  it is in French.  In chapter 2 the earl is to succeed to ‘une counte enter’ and the baronial relief is to be 100 marks.   


  For the engrossments, see Vincent, Magna Carta: Origins and Legacy, pp.216-222.


  Statutes of the Realm, I, pp.17-19 for Magna Carta and pp.20-21 for the Forest Charter.


  Of the copies cited, that in the York Domesday Book  (below p.53) is said to be  sealed by the legate and the Marshal, but neither has a ‘giving’ clause or a date. The copy in the Black Book of Dublin (below p.55) has neither a sealing nor a ‘giving’ clause, and ends with the statement ‘ut supra in fine alterius carte’. This refers back to the copy of the 1217 Charter (fol.166v), which is in fact a hybrid text combining elements from 1217 and 1225. Here, however, we do now find the Charter being  given at St Paul’s on 6 November but by the chancellor Richard Marsh (about whom more later). The  final copy cited is that of the Forest Charter found in what is described as  in Lib. X fo.18 at the Exchequer at Westminster. I am grateful to Drs Paul Dryburgh and Jessica Nelson of The National Archives for suggesting that the reference is to E 164/ 9-11 since these are Statute Books which were used by the makers of Statutes of the Realm. I cannot, however, find any reference to the Forest Charter in E 164/ 10. It does appear, however, in E 164/ 9 between fos.xviii verso and xix (so this matches up with the cited folio). However, the copy of the Forest Charter there has no sealing and ‘giving’ clause and again simply refers back to the earlier copy of Magna Carta (see below, p.56).  Here in what is again a hybrid text, the end is the same as in the Dublin copy. In other words, the Charter is given on 6 November at St Paul’s by Richard Marsh.


   Both Charters are given in French. The text of Magna Carta is a hybrid of 1217 and 1225.


The copy in a late thirteenth-century statute book (BL Harley, 746). The Charter here is a hybrid of 1217 and 1225 (below p.57).  


The is  copy in the cartulary of Alvingham priory (below pp.51-2)


  Some copies, as opposed to engrossments, of the 1215 Charter bear the date 16 not 15 June, see p.18 above and note 56.


  Below p.55.


  The same form may have been behind a  copy in the Alvingham cartulary (below pp.51-2) where Magna Carta itself  is sealed by the legate and the regent on 6 November 1217 at St Paul's and then Richard Marsh's name  appears, without  any assigned role,  between the sealing clause and the date.


  See D.A. Carpenter, The Minority of Henry III (London, 1990), pp.73-4.


  Vincent,  Magna Carta: Origins and Legacy, pp.220-1 and p.169 for a photograph of the back of the Charter with the archival marks. For the cartulary see Davis, Breay, Harrison and Smith, Medieval Cartularies, no.455B. Its date is 1397.


  Davis, Breay, Harrison and Smith, Medieval Cartularies, no.454.


  Davis, Breay, Harrison and Smith, Medieval Cartularies, no.6


  Davis, Breay, Harrison and Smith, Medieval Cartularies, no.12.


   I give the conventional numbers for the chapters first provided by Blackstone, see my Magna Carta, pp.22-3, 423.  Not all the Blackstone chapters are separately distinguished in the Merton copy. 


  Davis, Breay, Harrison and Smith, Medieval Cartularies, no.700.


  The Letters and Charters of Cardinal Guala Bicchieri, Papal Legate in England 1216-1281, ed. N. Vincent (Canterbury and York Society, 83, 1996), p.130.


  For these cartularies, see Davis, Breay, Harrison and Smith, Medieval Cartularies, nos.1087, 1088.

Referenced in

Magna Carta 1215 (The Copies of Magna Carta)

Magna Carta 1215 (The Copies of Magna Carta)

The Copies of Magna Carta